State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

The finals of the boys state basketball tournament should be played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

The Illinois High School Association's signature event belongs in the state's most celebrated venue this side of United Center.

That said, it won't happen until the folks in Champaign-Urbana get their act together and decide that they really want to host the tournament, as they did from 1919 to 1995.

The University of Illinois' new athletic director, Mike Thomas, said he wants to host the tournament once again, and new men's basketball coach, John Groce, said he wants to see the tournament in Assembly Hall.

"The first question that coach John Groce asked me (after he was hired) was about having the state tournament back in Champaign. I think that's critical," said Thomas, who hopes to tie the completion of the Assembly Hall's renovation to a bid for the tournament.

But Thomas already is aware of the issues involved. Former coach Bruce Weber also wanted to return the tournament to Champaign. But neither Weber nor former athletic director Ron Guenther had enough clout with local businessmen to make it happen.

"We also have to remember, to do that, it's not just a University of Illinois event--we can certainly do our part--but it's also a community event," Thomas said. "So everybody in the Champaign-Urbana area has to be on board as it relates to hosting those events and putting in attractive bids that would make folks want to come here."

We've heard that song before. Until Thomas, Groce and university officials persuade the businessmen in the Champaign-Urbana...the hotel and motel owners, the gas station owners, the restaurant and bar owners...to stop gouging the people who attend the event, it will never happen.

For years, I beat a drum for Champaign. Assembly Hall, I wrote repeatedly, is an architectural masterpiece. Carver Arena in Peoria is just another gym. Even 50 years after it was built, Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind facility that still awes visitors.

If you can't hold the state finals in Chicago's United Center, then the best place in the state is Assembly Hall. You don't display the Mona Lisa in a convenience store. The state's showcase event belongs in a 16,000-seat arena that is unlike any other in the country.

Sure, Assembly Hall needs to be renovated, and it will be. As a Illinois student, I remember when architect Max Abramovitz' version of the Taj Mahal was a big hole in the ground in 1959. I was awed to walk in for the first time to attend the first game played there, then the first state tournament in 1963. It was build for 8.35 million or 63.4 million in today's dollars.

Last November, a 2.2 million proposal to renovate Assembly Hall was approved by the University's Board of Trustees, calling for the installation of air conditioning, expanded restrooms and corporate luxury boxes.

Trivia note: There are only two sports facilities in Illinois that are on the list of endangered historic places--Assembly Hall and Wrigley Field.

The state tournament was a big-time event when the dome-shaped Assembly Hall was originally opened. Scalpers abounded outside old Huff Gym, which sat only 6,000. But they still found takers outside Assembly Hall in the early years. In those days, the high schools supported the tournament. You saw dozens and dozens of basketball players wearing their varsity letter jackets. And radio stations from Carbondale to the Quad Cities covered the event live.

Not anymore. The last time the IHSA put up the site of state tournament finals for bid, Champaign-Urbana proposed 200,000. Peoria proposed 450,000 and a pact with local hotels not to gouge visitors or force a three-night minimum stay. Guess who won the bid?

Give Peoria credit, they have done a marvelous job of hosting the state finals. The city has financial support from Caterpillar and its riverboat casino. Without the University of Illinois, it has been argued, Champaign-Urbana would be another Tuscola or Paxton.

Another plus for the tournament in Peoria is the March Madness Experience, a collection of fun and games that draws hundreds of basketball fans and just plain folks and their kids to the large exposition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. Some visitors spend all their time at the Experience and never see a game.

The last time we checked Champaign-Urbana or any other community in the state, even Chicago, doesn't have a comparable facility to hold such an event, a fact I'm sure the IHSA takes into serious consideration whenever the tournament comes up for bid. The IHSA's current contract with Peoria runs through 2014-15.

Originally, the IHSA never dreamed the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana. After 77 years in Champaign, even Steve Kouri, the Peoria lawyer who conceived of the plot to steal the prize, had doubts that the heist could be pulled off. But constant complaints from schools and fans opened the door and Peoria charged in with a well-organized and well-funded game plan that blew away the committee chosen to evaluate the proposals.

Kouri met with Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director of the IHSA, and was stunningly surprised when Flynn informed him that the IHSA didn't think it was appreciated in Champaign, that if Peoria could offer a financial incentive, it might be accepted. Yes, Kouri said to himself as he left the meeting with Flynn, "we can get this thing if we do it right."

"They (Champaign) never believed the tournament would leave the town," Flynn said. So nobody blinked when the Assembly Hall raised its rental fee, demanded a higher percentage of merchandise sales and gross receipts and began charging for parking. For years, tournament visitors had been complaining about rising prices for lodging. Tournament attendance had declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We had to find a way to get people back and generate more interest in the tournament," Flynn said. "It got to the point where Champaign-Urbana didn't budge and the other communities said: 'Give us a chance to show you what we can do.' I knew Peoria's bid would be a good one."

The Peoria package was too good to pass up. Civic leaders and businessmen pledged support. Caterpillar, the city's biggest industry, made a financial commitment. The hotels, always the biggest hangup in Champaign-Urbana, jumped on board.

It got even better when they organized a Fan Jam or March Madness Experience in the 66,000-square-foot exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. "A light bulb when on. We could do it. We could enhance the tournament and give the IHSA something that Champaign-Urbana couldn't," Kouri said.

The final decision was a no-brainer. After examining bids from Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Illinois State University in Normal, the IHSA unanimously awarded the tournament to Peoria.

The IHSA surveyed its membership and concluded that the overwhelming majority favored the move. "The only minus was Carver Arena (compared to Assembly Hall). But there were so many pluses," said then IHSA executive director David Fry.

"People said the tournament isn't about the arena, it's about players, games and fun. Peoria had everything except the Assembly Hall. But not too many people seemed to mind. When I went into the March Madness Experience for the first time, it blew my mind."

It is hard to imagine that the IHSA will opt to return to Champaign-Urbana. But, remember, nobody thought the state tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana in the first place.

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

As questions about his future remain, David Accam is in his best run with the Fire

For the past two seasons, David Accam was a bright spot on bad Chicago Fire teams.

This season, with more talent on the roster, Accam has blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league.

He had a hat trick and an assist in Saturday’s 4-0 win against Orlando. That gives him 10 goals and six assists on the season. Only two other players in Major League Soccer have 16 combined goals and assists, New York City FC's David Villa and teammate Nemanja Nikolic (the leading goal-scorer in the league).

“I thought I could do anything on the pitch today,” Accam said. “I just wanted to enjoy myself and entertain the fans and also help the team win. That’s what we did today, especially after my first goal. I just thought I could get more goals and also help the team win.”

Accam’s big game comes after he sat out the previous two games, which were both played on turf. He wasn’t listed on the injury report, but coach Veljko Paunovic said, “he didn’t recover from the physical issues that he had in the previous game.”

The rest seemed to do Accam some good, but his success in the game (as well as his recent run of eight goals and four assists in his last eight matches) coincides with questions about his future. He was recently rumored to be the target of a Turkish club.

In the past, Accam has spoken about his ambition to play at the highest levels. Typically, that means Europe. General manager Nelson Rodriguez said last month that he expects offers to come in for the 26-year-old because he is a good player in his prime ages.

So is Accam playing like someone trying to earn a new contract? That could be either impressing potential suitors in Europe or boosting his negotiation position with the Fire. Rodriguez has talked about contract negotiations with Accam before, and said those will not resume again until after the season.

“I wanted to be in a team where I would develop as a person and also win trophies, whether here or somewhere (else) I don’t know,” Accam said. “For me, I’m doing really well here and every year if I keep playing well there will be always interest. I know there is a lot of interest because I’m doing well. For me it’s always extra motivation to keep doing well. You don’t know where I will end up, whether here or somewhere else. I’ll just keep playing.”

Accam’s play earned him another call-up to the Ghanaian national team. He will join the team on Sunday for a pair of friendlies in the U.S. The Black Stars will take on Mexico in Houston on June 28 and the U.S. in East Hartford, Conn., on July 1 as the two North American countries prepare for the Gold Cup.

“That’s where I want to be,” Accam said. “I want to be playing for the national team so it’s extra motivation for me to perform well and also to go to the national team.”

Accam has been one of the most productive players in MLS this year, based on goals and assists, and is young enough to draw the attention of plenty of teams. For now, the Fire have him as a key part of the best season the club has had in years.

“I think that he understands very well how to play with the team that we have now and with the teammates that he is surrounded with,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “We just have to work to give David opportunities… Then we expect that performances like that will come even more.”

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